'A Snarling Roughhouse:' the Democratic Convention of 1924

By Ranson, Edward | History Today, July 1994 | Go to article overview

'A Snarling Roughhouse:' the Democratic Convention of 1924

Ranson, Edward, History Today

Edward Ranson describes how an extraordinary 17-day political dogfight in New York, seventy years ago this month, revealed the faultlines in American society in the Roaring Twenties.

The 1920s in America have attracted a large number of epithets -- the Jazz Age, the Era of Wonderful Nonsense, the Age of the Flapper, the Dry Decade, the Lawless Decade, the Golden Age of Sport, the Great Spree, the Automobile Age and most frequently the Roaring Twenties. This was the age of cross-word puzzles, modern dances with strange animal names, radio, the movies and then the talkies, even flag-pole sitting. It was also the decade of new sporting and entertainment stars like |Red' Grange, |Big Bill' Tilden, |Babe' Ruth, Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey, Rudolph Valentino, Rudy Vallee, Mary Pickford, Theda Bara and Clara Bow. These images and names demonstrate the variety and vitality of a decade noted for its materialism, speculation and self-indulgence.

The First World War was a traumatic experience for the United States, resulting in enormous political, social, economic and psychological stresses and strains that continued to manifest themselves in the twenties. In many ways this is surprising because the nation only entered the war in April 1917, actually benefited economically, suffered few casualties compared to other belligerents and lost more lives in the Great |Flu' Epidemic of 1918-19. Yet the country quickly became disillusioned with the war, the peace and the post-war scene. Perhaps this was because the nation entered the conflict with crusading zeal but found contact with Europe, the complexities of diplomacy, the threat of Bolshevism, the sordid squabbles over reparations and war debts disenchanting. Many intellectuals in the US were distressed by post-war America and abhorred the philistinism, xenophobia, organised bigotry and cynicism which led to the |Red Scare', a series of bitter strikes, a wave of race riots and to calls for immigration restriction.

Immigration was controversial because of the demographic trends confirmed by the 1920 census. The population of the United States rose from 76 million in 1900 to 106 million in 1920, but more alarming to many people, especially old-stock rural Protestants, was the dramatic shift in the urban-rural balance. America had always been predominantly rural, and as late as 1900 country dwellers enjoyed a comfortable three to two advantage over urban residents, with all that implied in terms of political power and cultural norms. However, in 1920 it was revealed that for the first time urban areas outnumbered rural areas by about 2.5 million people. This was a shocking and worrying fact for those who looked upon towns and cities as centres of vice, crime, disease, poverty and corruption, and who feared for America as they knew it. The recent immigrants were perceived to be southern and eastern Europeans, often Catholics and with little experience of democratic processes, who flocked into the expanding cities where they lived in ethnic ghettos.

It is against this background of social, economic and cultural change and tension that the political history of the 1920s must be viewed. Most obviously there was the continuing partisan struggle between the Republicans and the Democrats that dated back to before the Civil War. However, the conflict within the Democratic Party in these years, as the urban and rural factions battled for supremacy, was at least as important and a good deal more spectacular, culminating in the head-on confrontation between the two wings of the party in New York in 1924, a meeting one contemporary called |a snarling, cursing, tedious, tenuous, suicidal, homicidal roughhouse.'

It has been well said that for the Republicans politics is a business, which they usually conduct with considerable efficiency, but for the Democrats politics is an emotional experience. In part this is because the Democratic Party is an unlikely coalition of factions that periodically struggle for control, especially in presidential election years and at national conventions. The southern and western wing was predominantly rural, native-born, Protestant and |dry', supporting prohibition, at least for other people. On the other hand the northern and eastern wing was increasingly urban, and drew strength from recent immigrant groups who were often Catholic and |wet'. They were drawn together for historical reasons and by shared opposition to the Republicans and the interest groups that supported the Grand Old Party. Otherwise the Democratic factions had so little in common that it was a recurring quadrennial problem to frame a political platform and to nominate a presidential candidate acceptable to the whole party. It has even been contended that the strong infusion of Celtic blood into the party meant they actually derived pleasure from internal fights.

The Democrats' difficulties were compounded by their |Two-Thirds Rule', dating from the 1830s, which required the presidential nominee to obtain the votes of two out of three delegates at the national convention, unlike the Republican procedure that required only a simple majority. While the |two-thirds' rule might ensure that the eventual nominee had wide support within the party, it was also a recipe for obstruction, making it possible for a determined minority to block rivals even if they could not nominate their own champion. it had, for example, taken forty-six ballots in 1912 and forty-four in 1920 to select a candidate, and there were distant memories of 1860 when the convention had to adjourn after fifty-seven fruitless ballots without a party standard-bearer, and the rival factions each subsequently nominated its own man.

Given the perennial Democratic problems it might seem that since the Republicans, led by Warren G. Harding, had won the 1920 presidential and congressional elections by handsome margins, Democratic defeat in 1924 was pre-ordained and inevitable. However, by 1922 the Republicans had alienated important sections of the electorate and suffered substantial reverses in the midterm elections. Moreover, by 1923 several embarrassing scandals had surfaced that besmirched the Republicans' reputation, notably the Teapot Dome affair (the scandal that rocked the Harding administration over the illegal lease of naval oil reserves to a private company at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, in 1922) and the activities of Harding's cronies known as the |Ohio Gang.' Even though the affable but vulnerable Harding died in August 1923, and was replaced by the puritanical, parsimonious and taciturn Calvin Coolidge, 1924 held promise for the Democrats provided they avoided any damaging public split.

In early June 1924 the Republicans met in Cleveland, Ohio. In one of the dullest conventions on record -- the humourist Will Rogers suggested the town open up the churches to give a little life to the affair -- they overwhelmingly nominated Coolidge, whose transparent honesty and laconic style had endeared him to the public and helped to improve the electoral chances of the Republicans. one of the few noteworthy features was the radio coverage of the proceedings, and the commentator Graham McNamee recalled the convention as |a rather cut-and-dried affair', which gave the radio stations the false impression that |convention broadcasting was a cinch'. They would soon be disabused.

Just as Republican prospects brightened, Democratic hopes dimmed. The early Democratic front-runner was William Gibbs McAdoo. Born in Georgia in 1863 and trained as a lawyer he moved to New York in 1892 where he became a successful entrepreneur and the driving force behind the construction of the Hudson tunnels. McAdoo supported Woodrow Wilson for governor of New Jersey in 1910 and for the presidential nomination in 1912, and was rewarded with the post of Secretary of the Treasury. His association with Wilson was reinforced in 1914 by his marriage to the president's youngest daughter, Eleanor. McAdoo's own chances of nomination in 1920 were damaged by Wilson's ambiguous attitude and obvious desire for a third term in the White House despite his poor health.

In 1922 McAdoo shifted his residence from New York, where his political prospects had never been good on account of his southern origins and opposition to the New York City Democratic machine, the notorious Tammany Hall, to politically more congenial southern California. He campaigned in the West that year and deserved some credit for Democratic successes. Immediately thereafter he began to build support for a bid for the 1924 presidential nomination, and became an open candidate in December 1923. McAdoo's campaign faltered, however, in February 1924, when his name was linked to that of Edward L. Doheny of the Pan American Petroleum Company during the Teapot Dome investigation because he had accepted legitimate, but unwise, retaining fees from Doheny's company. The revelations, which came as McAdoo was leaving California to travel to Washington where his father-in-law lay critically ill, seemed to herald the end of his political ambitions, and when Wilson died it was commented that McAdoo would arrive in the East in time to attend his own political funeral as well as Wilson's. The Nation even ran an article entitled |Is it McAdieu?'

McAdoo refused to give up, made an appearance before the investigating committee to clear his name, held a conference of supporters in Chicago, and announced he would continue his campaign. But the momentum was lost, and the tarnishing of McAdoo's image in the oil scandal undermined the Democrats' credibility as the party to cleanse the government of corruption.

McAdoo's misfortunes encouraged rivals, notably Senator Oscar W. Underwood of Alabama and Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York. Underwood had a distinguished career in Congress, and had been a candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1912. His strategy was to win primary elections in southern states and to be the second choice of northern delegations. His appeal in the North was based on his generally sympathetic attitude to business and his opposition to both prohibition and the Ku Klux Klan, attitudes which, however, were counter-productive in the South. His verbal assault upon the Kian in October 1923, as an organisation that struck at the foundations of American democracy, was in marked contrast to McAdoo's careful avoidance of the subject. For his temerity the Klan branded Underwood as the |Jew, jug and Jesuit' candidate. McAdoo's problems might have been expected to help Underwood, but although he won the Alabama primary in March 1924 Underwood lost in every other southern state and had to devise a new plan. Since he had no significant number of delegates his scheme was to hope and work for a stalemate in New York.

Governor Alfred Emanuel Smith of New York, known to all as Al Smith, launched his campaign with the aim of blocking the nomination of McAdoo, who as a southern, rural, Protestant, |dry' candidate and recipient of Klan support was anathema to northern, urban, Democrats. Unexpectedly, Smith began to show surprising strength, although this was confined to the North-East and parts of the Middle West. Ten years younger than McAdoo, Smith had worked his way up the political ladder within the New York Democratic organisation, but though a loyal member of the Tammany machine he had never been subservient nor corrupt. Smith's intelligence, ability, charm and reform record won him the governorship in 1918, 1922, 1924 and 1926. He was a good speaker and even made figures seem interesting. One of his staff remarked he could make statistics |sit up, beg, roll over and bark'. The many constructive features of Smith's political career counted less in 1924 than the facts that he was a New Yorker of recent immigrant background, a Catholic and an opponent of prohibition. He was the antithesis of McAdoo, and the symbol of everything the southern and western wing of the party hated and feared.

McAdoo's indiscretion, and the failure of Underwood or Smith to emerge as clear leaders, encouraged other states to support favourite sons. Most of these were not serious candidacies, but marks of courtesy to local leaders and bargaining positions that would allow wheeling and dealing later. Only Senator Samuel Ralston of Indiana and John W. Davis of West Virginia would figure prominently during the convention. Thus McAdoo went to New York with only 270 pledged delegates, Smith with 126, Underwood with 24, and some 200 were committed to favourite sons for the first few ballots at least. The remainder of the 1,098 votes were uncommitted, though since some states allowed votes to be split, 1,436 delegates plus alternates took part in the proceedings. No candidate was remotely near to the 732 votes needed under the two-thirds rule, and the uncertain political outlook was reflected in the betting odds regarding the nomination offered on the eve of the convention. Smith was quoted at 2 to 1, McAdoo at 3 to 1, and Ralston, Underwood and Davis at 4 to 1, but whoever the Democratic candidate might be President Coolidge remained a hot favourite to win in November.

The choice of New York City for the 1924 convention was due to a number of factors. The city had not hosted a major party convention since 1868, local politicians wanted the honour, New Yorkers hoped to prove their city did not deserve its reputation for sin and corruption, local businessmen were willing to finance the city's bid and the decision was made in 1923 before McAdoo's campaign stuttered and Al Smith became a serious candidate. The selection of New York added fresh tension since most southern and western delegates saw it as enemy territory and no better than Sodom or Gomorrah. McAdoo would have preferred San Francisco, but that city had been the scene of the Democratic convention in 1920.

The Democratic National Convention opened on Tuesday June 24th, in the old Madison Square Garden designed by Stanford White and owned and operated by the sports promoter |Tex' Rickard. Although due to be demolished soon after the convention the Garden was refurbished for the occasion and special facilities installed for the press corps and radio commentators. Whereas the Republican gathering in Cleveland had been marked by austerity and lack of decoration, the Garden was festooned with 3,500 flags, and another 10,000 miniature flags were released from the ceiling at the opening ceremony. Anyone who wondered what was about to happen might well have recalled that the Garden had recently staged a six-day bicycle race, and the immediately preceding attraction had been the Barnum and Bailey circus.

New York City was determined to make a good impression. Hotels promised not to raise their prices and prepared for an estimated 20,000 visitors. Many restaurants added regional dishes to their menus. Stores, cinemas, theatres, museums and churches welcomed the delegates in their own ways, and numerous receptions and excursions were organised, including visits to West Point, Coney Island and the Stock Exchange. Particular care was taken to provide entertainment and facilities for the 500 female delegates and alternates and for the wives of male delegates. There were naval ships on display on the North River and a pre-convention municipal parade with fifty bands. The police department made every effort to reduce petty crime and assigned hundreds of officers to the convention itself Twenty-five expectant mothers at the New York Nursery and Child Hospital formed a Mothers' Democratic Club and agreed to name the first boy born after the convention opened in honour of the nominee, whoever he might be.

Unfortunately, these efforts to win over hostile southerners and westerners were unsuccessful. The delegates' preconceptions about New York as a locus of vice, crime, bootlegging, financial chicanery and religious liberalism were quickly confirmed, and New Yorkers beliefs that the rural delegates were hicks and rubes were similarly reinforced.

On June 24th, the convention observed the opening formalities -- being called to order, prayers, the national anthem, the keynote address. When one visitor commented on the lack of excitement a reporter replied, |Just wait, those are Democrats down there'.

On the second day Senator Thomas J. Walsh of Montana was chosen as permanent chairman and made an address attacking the Republicans and all their deeds. Walsh was acceptable to all factions because he was a leader of the oil investigation, and although a westerner and a dry he was also a Catholic and anti-Klan. His handling of the convention with impartiality made him one of the few to emerge from the experience with an enhanced reputation. As the platform committee was not ready to report, the convention moved on to the nomination process which lasted from Wednesday afternoon until late on Friday, June 27th. By then forty-three speakers had nominated or seconded sixteen candidates. Will Rogers complained he was fifteen minutes late for one session and missed five nominations, and the New York Times commented on the list |It cannot honestly be called an embarrassment of riches'.

The highlights of the nominating process included the speech proposing Underwood, which included a direct condemnation of the Klan that threw the hall into confusion as half the delegates demonstrated against the Klan while the remainder stayed pointedly in their seats. The carefully prepared hour-long demonstration by delegates wearing |Mc'll Do' hatbands and chanting |Mac! Mac! McAdoo!' prompted a counterdemonstration from Smith supporters in the galleries shouting |Ku, Ku, McAdoo'. Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech nominating Al Smith, whom he referred to as |the Happy Warrior of the political battlefield', triggered a seventy-three minute demonstration as Smith's supporters carried out their vow to make a longer and noisier display than McAdoo's delegates. It was clear already that the activities of Smith adherents were antagonising not only McAdoo's forces, but also the uncommitted delegates whose votes they needed.

The platform committee met for four days, June 24th-27th, in an attempt to resolve differences over prohibition, membership of the League of Nations and the particularly difficult Klan issue. The question was whether to include a general condemnation of intolerance and religious bigotry, as the McAdoo men wanted, or specifically to name the Klan, as the Smith men insisted. The committee finally decided not to name the Klan, but the anti-Klan group resolved to challenge this on the floor.

The platform was read to the convention on Saturday afternoon, with 1,200 police present in case of disturbances, and pro-League and anti-Klan amendments were offered which were debated that evening. Former Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, made an impassioned plea for the United States to join the League, but though moved by Baker's oratory the delegates voted two to one for the official platform that recommended a referendum on the subject. The main event of the evening, however, was the debate on whether to condemn the Klan implicitly or explicitly -- an apparently minor difference of enormous symbolic significance. A succession of speakers for and against naming the Klan stirred the emotions of delegates and spectators alike, concluding with an appeal by William Jennings Bryan for party unity and support for the official version. He was greeted with jeers by anti-Klan adherents.

The vote on the Klan began at 11.35pm on Saturday night amidst near pandemonium and took two hours to complete during which time 1,000 extra police were drafted in to keep order while rival delegates exchanged blows and insults. Whichever way the vote went the debate was a catastrophe for the Democrats as it revealed to millions who listened on radio, or read their papers later, the depth and bitterness of the schism. In order to reward loyal party workers with a trip to the national convention some states appointed more delegates than they had votes, and gave each a fraction of a vote to cast. When delegations were divided fractions came into play. When the tally was complete the resolution naming the Klan was rejected 542 3/20 to 541 3/20, demonstrating how evenly the convention was divided. The result indicated that neither McAdoo nor Smith could win, but that each could, and probably would, thwart the other. Defeating the Republicans was now a secondary consideration.

Sunday, June 29th, was a day of rest, and the convention did not begin balloting for the presidential nomination until Monday when McAdoo led Smith 431 1/2 to 241 on the first vote. There was a remarkable correlation between the Klan vote and the support of the leading contenders. This ballot, and those that followed, was led off by Governor Brandon announcing, |Al-a-bam-ah-h-h casts twen-ty-fo-ah votes for Os-cah Double-yuh Un-n-n-der-wood!' After the first few ballots the delegates and visitors in the galleries joined in the intonation of what became the best-known phrase in the country and a vaudeville joke. Allegedly, whenever street-car conductors in New York called out |Alabama' on reaching a street with that name, the passengers replied in unison, |Casts twenty-four votes for Underwood'.

Thus began the balloting marathon for which the convention is notorious, and eventually fifty-nine names received votes at one time or another. By the end of that week, which included Independence Day, seventy-seven votes had been held with no winner in sight. After a second Sunday break balloting resumed on Monday, July 7th, but a result was not achieved until Wednesday, July 9th. McAdoo's strength peaked at 528 1/2 on the 70th ballot, and Smith at 368 on the 76th and 83rd, which was enough to give him a veto against McAdoo. Smith received only a single vote from the South throughout, and only a handful from west of the Mississippi. The McAdoo forces accused Smith supporters of deliberately prolonging the convention in the hope that southern and western delegates would be forced to leave due to lack of funds. Numerous plans to end the impasse were proposed but rejected by entrenched and embittered delegates, including complicated schemes gradually to eliminate minor candidates and a proposal to adjourn the whole affair and reconvene later in Kansas City. Occasionally there were shifts to favourite sons like Ralston of indiana, who did not want the honour due to age and health, but these were usually short lived.

Not until after the 99th ballot, late on July 8th, did McAdoo finally accept that he had no hope of nomination, and even then he only released his delegates rather than withdrawing completely. It was understood that if McAdoo stood aside so would Smith, and this initiated a scramble to see who would benefit from the new situation. One more ballot, the 100th, was taken on July 8th, before the meeting adjourned, and two more on July 9th, with John W. Davis of West Virginia forging ahead of Senators Underwood and Walsh. On the 103rd ballot Davis' total surged past the necessary two-thirds to end the ordeal, though by then the nomination was a poisoned chalice.

Davis was an outstanding lawyer, a former Solicitor-General of the United States, Ambassador to Great Britain and President of the American Bar Association. A man of the highest ability and integrity he was relatively unknown to the general public and had some embarrassing Wall Street connections. He drew votes from both the McAdoo and Smith camps, but his nomination was more a triumph for the urban and-industrial North and East than for the rural and agricultural South and West.

Having torn itself apart over religious and related issues, the party tried to persuade Senator Walsh, a dry Catholic, to accept the vice-presidential nomination, but he declined. In a move many found incredulous the convention then chose Governor Charles W. Bryan of Nebraska, whose comment on being advised of his likely nomination was, |Quit your kidding'. His elder brother, William jennings Bryan, added, |The age of miracles has not passed'. Nevertheless, the choice did add political and geographic balance to the ticket. The convention finally adjourned at 2.30am on Thursday, July 10th, seventeen days after it opened.

Many factors contributed to the imbroglio -- prohibition, religion, the Klan, sectional animosities, the urban-rural divide, the choice of New York, accidents of personalities. Together they reproduced inside the cauldron of Madison Square Garden all the conflicts, tensions, passions, fears and prejudices that divided America.

The Democrats wounds were too deep to heal quickly, and, in fact, the struggle for control of the party would go on. The short term consequence was that Davis and Bryan were heavily defeated in November 1924. Indeed, in a dozen western states the Democrats suffered the humiliation of running third behind not only the Republicans but also a third party, the Progressives, led by Senator La Follette of Wisconsin. No party had exposed its internal divisions so publicly before, except possible the Democrats in 1860, and probably no party will ever do so again. The party abandoned the |two-thirds' rule in 1936, which ought to make another political blood-letting improbable, but it may be dangerous to under-estimate the Democrats.


David Burner, The Politics Of Provincialism. The Democratic Party In Transition 1918-1932 (New York, 1970); Robert K. Murray, The 103rd Ballot. Democrats And The Disaster In son Square Garden (New York, 1976); William Allen White, Politics: The Citizen's Business (New York, 1924); Lee N. Allen, |The Underwood Presidential Movement of 1924', Alabama Review (Vol 15, April 1962); Lee N. Allen, |The McAdoo Campaign for the Presidential Nomination in 1924', Journal of Southern History (Vol 29, May 1963); James C. Prude, |William Gibbs McAdoo and the Democratic National Convention of 1924', Journal of Southern History (Vol 38, November 1972); David E. Stratton, |Splattered With Oil: William G. McAdoo and the 1924 Democratic Presidential Nomination', Southwestern Social Science Quarterly, 1963.

Edward Ranson is Lecturer in American History at the University of Aberdeen.

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